By: Blair Glencorse and Teemu Ropponen.
This post has also been submitted for the OGP blog.
Liberia has made some impressive reforms to support open government since it signed the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) in 2005. The government has put in place a host of bodies focused on transparency and accountability, including the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) and the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission (PPCC). It was also the first African state to comply with Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) rules governing natural resources and the first West African country to pass a Freedom of Information Act.
Against a variety of measures- including the World Bank’s Governance Indicators, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and the Open Budget Index– Liberia has exhibited steady progress. The recent 2013 Ibrahim Index of African Governance showed Liberia to have made greater governance gains than any other African country since 2000.
In practice, however, legal frameworks and bureaucratic mandates have been difficult to implement, and organizations have been hard to manage. Liberia remains an extremely demanding context, at the central-level with serious challenges in terms of incentive structures, rule of law, capacity, infrastructure and resources. Moreover, information is difficult to obtain and data remains stove-piped; while for citizens it is still tremendously time-consuming and exhausting to navigate formal governance systems according to the written rules.
This problem begins with an absence of information in a form Liberians can understand and use to ensure the transparency and accountability of government. It is encouraging, therefore, that the Johnson Sirleaf administration- through the Open Government Partnership– has committed, among other reforms, to the development of a citizen website and an open data portal.
The Accountability Lab and iLab Liberia are supporting these commitments through Knowmore LIB (“Knowmore” is a knowledgeable person in Liberian English; “LIB” is a local nickname for Liberia)- a project to assess, find, collect and visualize information and datasets on key government services. The team is working with the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT) to build a dual purpose website to function as an open data hub and as a government navigation portal to help citizens understand and use government services more effectively.
In a context like Liberia, however, high tech approaches are simply not enough when internet penetration and education levels are low. We are also bridging the digital and literacy divide creatively through an off-line campaign using popular chalk billboards to convey this information to citizens in language and illustrations they understand. Recently, we ran a series including pictures and explanations of road signs and rules- and had everyone from passersby to policemen asking for further information.
Additionally, we are beginning to train government, media, and civil society organizations on data journalism and data visualization and the benefits and uses of open government and open data initiatives. In conjunction, the Accountability Lab has formed a Liberian Art Collective to begin painting murals with accountability and open government messages around Monrovia; and is supporting community radio shows to discuss government revenue and spending information in local languages.
Information can be transparent in Liberia but is often mismanaged or difficult to navigate. Knowmore LIB is a collaborative effort across civil society and government in Liberia to ensure that information can be used by Liberians to make their government more open, accountable and responsive to citizens.
Blair Glencorse is Executive Director of the Accountability Lab. You can follow the Lab on Twitter @accountlab. Teemu Ropponen is Country Director of iLab Liberia. You can follow iLab Liberia on Twitter @iLabLiberia